What the Spanish civil war can reveal about Syria

The Spanish civil war spanned three years – why has the Syrian conflict endured so much longer?

A Soviet cap, a rifle and a few bullets on a flag of the Spanish Republic [Getty]
A Soviet cap, a rifle and a few bullets on a flag of the Spanish Republic [Getty]

As the battle for Aleppo continues unabated, this intense episode in the Syrian civil war harkens back to a vicious battle for another Mediterranean city, Barcelona, during the Spanish civil war.

July 2016 marked the 80-year anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict in Spain, lasting from 1936 to 1939. In July 1936, General Francisco Franco led a rebellion among the Spanish military and his allies, collectively referred to as the Nationalists, against the recently elected left leaning Republican Government.

The Republican government rallied its military forces to its defence, in addition to anarchist and communist militia, and a civil war ensued.

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I refrain from invoking the cliched phrase, “history repeats itself”. Rather, this piece, part of a series of articles comparing the Spanish past and Syrian present, will elucidate similar dynamics in civil wars, and illustrate how they end or why they continue to endure. 

The similarities  

Comparisons between these two conflicts have been made before. Two prominent political scientists, Laia Balcells and Stathis Kalyvas write, “The Spanish Civil War became a focal conflict in Europe, the ideological and military battleground where fascist and anti-fascist forces clashed while the entire world stared. Today, Syria has become the key battleground of Sunni and Shia ideologues and activists.”

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While I disagree that the Syrian civil war can be reduced to Sunni-Shia tensions, their mention of how the “world stared” as the Spanish civil war unfolded holds true for most of the international community and Syria since the fighting broke out in 2011.

Republican Loyalists manning rifles and machineguns on mountain top position against Nationalist rebels during fighting in the Spanish civil war [Getty]

First, in terms of similarities, both conflicts involved rival foreign powers which sponsored proxies in the Spanish civil war, akin to the roles Saudi Arabia and Iran have played in the Syrian civil war, just to name a few.

The USSR sided with the Republicans and Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided its troops and military aid to the Nationalists, tipping the balance in Franco’s favour.

Franco was leading a rebellion against the government, which would seem to make his forces similar to the Nusra Front, but in terms of military hardware, he would be comparable to Bashar al-Assad in that he utilised most of the military hardware inherited from the state to combat his foes.

Both these parties demonstrated their dependence on airpower, even though 80 years have transpired, and aerial technology has developed significantly.

Franco had complete control of the air, due to the participation of the air forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which bombarded pro-Republican towns. As of 2015, the intervention of the Russian air force tilted the balance in Assad’s favour.

Both civil wars involved fighting for two major urban centres, the capitals, Madrid and Damascus, and two rebellious urban centres, Barcelona and Aleppo. The Republicans, like the Syrian rebels, suffered from infighting that ultimately weakened its ranks.

Both civil wars involved fighting for two major urban centres, the capitals, Madrid and Damascus, and two rebellious urban centres, Barcelona and Aleppo. The Republicans, like the Syrian rebels, suffered from infighting that ultimately weakened its ranks.

In the case of the Republican side, the aid delivered by the USSR to the Spanish communist militias, defeated the anarchist militias in Barcelona. ISIL has played a similar role in weakening Syrian rebels, particularly those forces who control Aleppo.

The differences

Despite the strength of Franco’s forces, in the spring of 1938 the Spanish civil war appeared to have reached a stalemate, yet a year later the Nationalists scored their final victory after conquering Madrid. That conflict spanned three years. Why has the Syrian conflict endured so much longer?

There are numerous reasons why the Syrian civil war continues. Differences in terms of military, geographical, and economic dynamics of the conflict provide some explanations.

First, the roles of the strongest military side are reversed. Assad has been ensconced in the capital, and the onus has been on the rebels to seize it.

Franco was invading his own country from Morocco to capture Madrid. The stronger military force in Spain had to take the capital, the ostensible seat of power, whereas in Syria the weaker power had to achieve this goal, which proved elusive. 

Second, Spain is only bordered by France and Portugal, with the former providing minimal aid to the Republicans, and the latter aiding the Nationalists.

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In the case of Syria, it has many more neighbours, bordered by Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, and each border serves as a conduit for perpetuating the conflict in terms of arms flows and fighters. Those border nations, in addition to the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran, all have a stake in the civil war, and all seek an end to the war that suits their national security interests.

Al-Nusra Front fighters carry weapons on the back of pick-up trucks during the release of Lebanese soldiers and policemen in Arsal, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon [Reuters]

Third, because the conflict has lasted longer in Syria, another difference is the political economy of the civil war.

Since the war has lasted so long in Syria a myriad warlords, some on the government side and others on the rebel side, have taken root during the conflict, developing their own parasitic set of micro-economies.

It is doubtful that these parties would support a negotiated political solution if their financial base were to be threatened by an end to the hostilities.

Anarchist and communist militias in Spain had developed their own micro-economies, such as in Barcelona, but these were dismantled after the Nationalist victory there.

Rehearsal for World War II

The Spanish civil war served as a battleground for Germany and Italy to test out their new military hardware, particularly their bombers targeting civilian centres. This tactic was a prelude to a much larger conflict, World War II.

Observers of the Syrian civil war argue that Russia is using this conflict to try out its new military hardware, ranging from cruise missiles to long-distance bombing raids from Iran, in order to send a message to the US and its NATO allies about its new military prowess.    

As a historian, I dislike the phrase “history repeats itself”, because it is overly deterministic, and denies the agency to actors in the present.

In this case, the US, Russia, and the Syrian parties need to ensure that the bloody, half-a-decade civil does not become the prelude to a much larger conflict.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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